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Fearing Fallout From Putin's War, Russians Flee Abroad

Passengers at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on March 5, after S7 Airlines cancelled all its international flights due to sanctions.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted tens of thousands of middle-class Russians to abruptly flee abroad as they stare at a bleak future in their increasingly isolated homeland.

Many say fear of the economic and political fallout from the war and the prospect of men being sent to fight in Ukraine were the primary reasons they decided to leave everything behind and flee the country.

But due to an ever-increasing number of crippling sanctions piled upon Russia, they don't have many destinations to choose from, with many Western countries restricting visas for Russian citizens. Meanwhile, thousands of international flights have been cancelled, as Russian airlines are barred from flying over many Western countries.

"We bought tickets to Tashkent because it was immediately available for a reasonable price," said Marina, who fled to Uzbekistan along with her husband and their three young children on March 3.

Russians are going to countries that don't require a visa, such as the former Soviet countries of Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Turkey is a top destination because of its direct flights, visa-free regime, and a sizeable Russian-speaking community. Those with more financial resources have left for the United Arab Emirates.

Many new Russian emigrees told RFE/RL that they had only a few days, if not hours, to make such a "life-changing decision" and leave. "We bought tickets at 7 p.m. on March 2 for the flight at 2:30 a.m. the following morning," Marina said. "In two hours we packed and headed to the airport with two suitcases."

There has been an overwhelming sense that the situation in Russia -- with stores closing and companies laying people off and foreign goods disappearing from the shelves -- will deteriorate further, and that "it won't get any better or easier" anytime soon, Marina explained.

Rumors of martial law being imposed by President Vladimir Putin in early March caused more panic. Martial law would mean a military mobilization of men, the closure of borders, and various restrictions on people's everyday lives and activities.

"We were afraid that the borders would be closed the very next day. So, we left everything -- our apartment and cars -- and jumped on the plane," Marina said.

Yulia, a Russian citizen who fled to Kyrgyzstan, tells a similar story. "We even forgot to pack some of the most basic things -- like toothbrushes and soap -- because we were in such a hurry," Yulia told RFE/RL.

Yulia and her daughter are now in a hotel in the southern city of Osh. She says there are several other Russian citizens living in Osh temporarily as they consider their next steps.

Yakov describes himself as a political activist. But thousands of other ordinary Russians -- many of them uninterested in politics -- are also leaving Russia.
Yakov describes himself as a political activist. But thousands of other ordinary Russians -- many of them uninterested in politics -- are also leaving Russia.

One of them is Yakov, who left Russia after taking part in anti-war protests. He was among the thousands of demonstrators detained recently by Russian police. Yakov was released after paying a fine of 10,000 rubles (about $105).

Yakov doesn't want to live in Russia under its current government. He said that "the laws are becoming increasingly stricter since the war began" and the authorities have further tightened people's freedoms, which were already restricted.

"Now, one can end up with a 15-year prison sentence for taking part in anti-government protests," Yakov said, referring to a law passed on March 4 that criminalizes spreading "false news" about the Russian military.

Yakov describes himself as a political activist. But thousands of other ordinary Russians -- many of them uninterested in politics -- are also leaving Russia.

New Realities

Russians woke up to a new reality that deprives them of the lifestyle they have been accustomed to in recent years. The new sanctions mean travel restrictions, the exodus of Western companies from Russia, and the suspension of major debit and credit cards, among others.

The ruble immediately dropped in value and tens of thousands lost their jobs overnight after Western shops closed.

The fear of being left on the wrong side of the new Iron Curtain by not being able to travel again was the reason 40-year-old businessman Aleksandr Medvedev decided to leave.

Medvedev fled to Turkey along with his wife and their three children, all under 5 years old. "We left not only for the sake of our children, but for ourselves too, just to be free to do what we can and want to do," Medvedev said. "Besides, I don't want to fight in this senseless [war] and die for it."

Aleksandr Medvedev and his family have left Russia for Turkey.
Aleksandr Medvedev and his family have left Russia for Turkey.

The exact number of the new Russian emigres is unknown but some estimates have more than 200,000 leaving the country as of March 12.

In early March, the Russian publication Kommersant quoted the head of the popular online travel agency Pososhok as saying that ticket prices to certain destinations skyrocketed as Russians rushed to buy one-way tickets. "I noticed how people are purchasing tickets en masse, tickets are selling out," Kiril Faminskiy said.

The price of a one-way ticket to Dubai rose from about 40,000 rubles ($360) to 200,000 rubles ($1,800), amid the high demand. Tickets to Istanbul"became five times more expensive," he said.

Yelena Knanpira and family
Yelena Knanpira and family

"Many people I know are emigrating," said Yelena Khanpira, who flew to Turkey with her husband and their child on March 3. "Some two dozen of my friends and acquaintances are leaving."

Khanpira and her husband are planning to stay in Turkey "for a couple of months and look for work." The couple haven't yet decided if they want to call Turkey their new home or move to a third country.

Marina and her husband in Tashkent face a similar dilemma. The young parents don't rule out that their eldest child will start school in Tashkent next year. For now they are keeping their options open. "The only thing we're sure about is that we won't return to Russia until Putin is out of power," Marina said. "He is destroying our country. We made the right decision to leave."

Marina Aronova of RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities and Almira Abidinova and Bolot Kolbaev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.